GREEN GHOST OF HONEYPOT by Chris Preston
“Controls are unresponsive,” Mara said. “We’re adrift!”
She glanced over to her husband, Dante, who was laying forward by his harness in the co-pilot chair. Hair obscured whatever damage their loose toolbox had done to his face when they performed an emergency acceleration.
“Wait, Dante. It’s okay, you got them,” She pointed to their pursuer’s ship, resembling a comet as it streaked past their cockpit windows.
It exploded, launching what remained of the Milky Way Security Force pursuit craft in every direction. Some of its debris tittered against their hull in an otherwise silent outer space. Inside the pressurized cabin, that sound joined a cacophony of sirens and warning lights.
Smells of burning wires and overloaded systems singed Mara’s nose. Most displays, including propulsion, had gone lifeless. To cut down on the fumes, she accessed the small locker to her left with safety gear and put her flight helmet on. Its internal audio controls functioned well enough to still hear and speak through the sealed device.
She attempted to calm her diagnostic panel with a few overriding toggles. “Dante, please tell me you’re okay. Anything!”
No response. A crimson pool began to grow under his chair, like a widening spotlight. The turbulence was too rough to unbuckle and check on him without endangering herself. There were still so many more problems to deal with. Even without propulsion, the experienced pilot could feel they were being pulled in a new direction.
Ahead, a golden aura crept into the flight cabin from a planet ahead.
“Where did you send us?” She tried to swat him, but the chairs were too separated.
Mara referenced one of the few still functioning monitors. “No. Why? Why here of all places?”
Moen 187f. Or, as the couple referred to it during their cadet mission—Honeypot. Toxic and barren. High in orbit, they seeded the planet with atmosphere generators for several weeks. On the final night, Dante worked up the nerve to kiss Mara for the first time. While the terraforming efforts ultimately failed, at least there was one good thing that came from the long trip. Now, years later, they had returned.
A cough. Mara swore she heard him cough.
“Darling, was that you? Please answer me!”
A faint titter. With his face obscured in blood and hair, his voice carried just barely over the blaring diagnostics. “We… we made it. One of the few coordinates I memorized.”
“Oh, thank god. Dante, I thought I lost you.”
“We’re not lost, Mara. We were young once here. Now, we return as smugglers on the run.”
Her elation made way for a continuation of the argument they were having before they were picked up on MWSF scanners. “Hey, I told you to take the alternate route, but you never listen. We’re lucky I started jamming him before the shooting started or there’d be a swarm of them on us right now. And don’t call us smugglers, we’re putting this all behind us once we get the girls safely home.”
Their daughters. It had been so long.
“Sure, because our union just accepts two commercial pilots back after being pirates for the last year.”
Mara silenced the final alarm and reached for his hand. “Everything we’re doing is for our kids, Dante. Don’t give up on us, or on them.” She stopped her lips from quivering momentarily. “Now, get your head straight and help me restart the engines. We’re going to smack into the ground within minutes if we don’t do something, and I’m not confident our safety systems will save us in their current state.”
Dante looked up. Through the flickering lights, she caught a glimpse of his glassy green eyes. Evelin had his eyes. Sacha had Mara’s button nose—a feature that caught Dante said caught his attention back when they first met.
He reached his hand out. “I don’t feel so hot.”
She went to grab it, but he went limp before she could.
“Dante! Hey, wake up!”
Mara couldn’t hear a response. The vibrations were getting violent. Vapour trails licked the nose of their craft.
Mara never said goodbye. Their ship went into a tumble. She reached for her release button, wanting to embrace him in this moment of all things ending. But the instrument panel let loose its impact foam, and her decision was sealed.
Mara was deprived of her senses within a large ball of hardened foam surrounding the pilot’s chair, as if chucked into the deadness of space. While still inside their ship, only the faintest rumblings could be felt from within the capsule. There was a thud. Mara’s body registered the sudden lack of motion.
For a moment, she felt safe.
A hiss. It grew louder, accompanying Mara’s own breathing. The foam was dissolving, letting rays of light make their way through the shell. That sound was coming from a hairline crack on the visor just above her left eye.
She recalled the high levels of chromium, mercury, and several other elements found in Honeypot’s air during their terraforming efforts.
Every muscle ached and felt bruised. Yet, the foam was now liquifying, and Mara didn’t feel like squandering this miracle of survival. After a few false starts, she pushed her arms through the loosening chunks of white goo and flung what she could to the ground. This accelerated the fumes flooding into her helmet.
“Come on, let go,” she whispered while feeling around her abdomen for the seat harness. Each inhale was becoming more laboured than the last.
There was a click, she fell forward onto the instrument panel. The ship was tilting forward but still upright enough to traverse. All she could make out in this moment through the dirty visor was what looked like shaving cream all over herself and the floor, mixed with a blackened interior.
Mara flung the dirty helmet off and brushed foam off her locker’s latch. It let go, revealing a breathing mask. While still holding her breath, she adjusted her flight cap straight and slipped the all plastic apparatus on. Once firmly against her skin, forehead to chin, Mara clicked the button on its side. This created a seal, releasing oxygen from its loaded cartridge.
That first breath was a relief. Better than the gritty rot sitting in Honeypot’s air that she had tasted.
On her second breath, she allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Everything surrounding her was scorched. Smoke bellowed from cracks along the floor like a volcano ready to erupt. Even the cabin windows gave out at some point mid drop. Yet, the emergency thrusters must have still fired without controls on the way down or this would have all disintegrated.
She spotted him, or what she assumed was her husband. His charred remains.
Dante, my god, she thought.
Mara paused only a moment more to put a hand over her heart. This planet brought them together, and it had now pulled them apart. One covered in white, one turned black. One standing, one laying down. One alive, one dead. She already missed him.
It was too dangerous to stay any longer. She went back into their pilot locker and pulled out a first aid backpack, lifting it onto either shoulder. Mara also took out Dante’s gun and holster, strapping it around her waist.
There was one more container, silver and bulky. The Goods. Their payment from The Syndicate to a black market dealer in return for whatever equipment they were meant to haul back. She picked it up by the handle. It wasn’t an escape pod, but at least she could now pay for hundreds of them.
Their cockpit windows weren’t traversable, another exit had to be discovered. With no power remaining, it took an incredible amount of strength to pry the cockpit door open. She did so only enough to squeeze out, falling onto the cargo corridor floor. Holes punctured the hull from above, offered light on all sides. They illuminated the flanking steel doors throughout.
Mara found a man sized hole in the freighter’s starboard side, she pulled herself out, praying the fire’s heat wasn’t enough to melt her mask.
Though still obstructed by smoke, she could make out her new surroundings. A sea of sand stretched out all around the crater her ship had created. Mara couldn’t find any discernible landmark or formation amongst the rolling dunes. The sky was a dead, cloudless grey. Only this system’s sun showed any vibrancy.
Dante would have found all this oddly romantic, being back on this planet. He was the daydreamer of the two.
Honeypot’s gravity was heavier than home, making even crawling problematic while looking for a way down from the craft. She found an area that looked to be safe enough for a descent on the outer shell. With the case in one hand, she scaled down on her belly to keep the descent slow. As she neared halfway, an explosion cut through the metal below her.
Mara panicked, attempting to stand, and instead tumbling over the crumpling material. Her fingers couldn’t hang on, allowing the case to soar out of sight as she fell. Her thud onto the crater floor made Mara’s vision go dark for a moment.
She attempted to shake it off while sitting up. Where’s the case? Smoke and debris tumbled all around, making the search impossible. A part of the hull cracked off above her, slamming down only a meter away.
Knowing it was too dangerous to stay, she turned to find a route out of the crater. Mara crawled through the loose sand below, occasionally stopping to reorientate the cap and mask on her head. Sweat were causing them to shift around.
The crackle of flames grew behind her, even as she continued to get distance on the ship. If there was a chance of finding the case later, any search would have to happen after the blaze was out.
Mara crested over the crater’s edge, climbing onto untouched desert. The journey was now somehow worse but at least she had the confidence to walk more upright. Her full body flight suit, coloured blue because of her captain designation, was durable but not meant for this type of activity. Clumps of sand collected against the remaining safety foam residue all over.
After walking for a while longer, when any more seemed impossible, she found herself perched atop a sand dune—the tallest around. Its view was higher than when she was atop her ship, though still nothing but dunes and the dulled sky could be seen.
She looked down at the crash site. “Goodbye, my love.”
What now? Her mask beeped, its first cartridge was spent. A package of twelve refills were in the first aid backpack. Two days’ worth if she used them wisely. Mara let the spent one nearly choke her out before exchanging it.
The sun set behind her husband’s resting place. A gigantic bonfire on an endless beach. It melted the ship down while burning.
For the first time in so long, Mara was directionless.
A moon rose from the horizon as the sun was still casting its light. Night soon followed. She could see the land with this moon’s soft hue. The crater was obscured in shadows, save for just a few remaining pockets of fire from the wreckage.
The constant howl of wind, and grains of sand, entered her cap covered ears. She felt the temperature dropping as well, so Mara took a moment to strap her gloves, boots, and suit up tightly before assuming a foetal position.
There was a tube inside her mask that she took a draw from, providing drinking water from the cartridge. She hadn’t yet decided how to consume the few protein bars that the first aid kit contained without losing a significant amount of air.
An hour of lying in the ground passed by while temperatures continued to cool. Soon, she felt frigid. Dante, you would’ve kept me warm. Keep each other warm.
Mara registered a new sound, like a thumping bass drum.
It rose above the constant wind. Something large but distant, clomping through the sand. With no flashlight, Mara was left to guess at its location in the dull moonlight
She speculated it was somewhere left of her position, roughly the same distance to the crash. Maybe a kilometre away, or closer. Her hand found the gun’s grip, fumbling around to feel where the safety was. She had fired a gun before, long ago, but never handled Dante’s until now.
The stomping neared her downed ship, eclipsing its remaining pockets of fire. Then, she lost it in the flame and smoke. Mara continued to scan the area but couldn’t even hear it anymore either.
Honeypot was thought to be lifeless. Though, they had seeded the planet twenty years ago with Bloomers. Small, gecko like creatures that could grow to be a meter long, then would explode, or bloom, into flora. But, despite their efforts, they had died off and the government crossed Moen 187f off their colonization plans.
“The sand killed what the wind missed,” their superior had told them when closing the project out. All Bloomer signals had gone dark after just a few weeks.
Was this some native creature that no scans picked up? Possibly, one of the bio engineered Bloomers grown out of control? She had never heard of that happening.
How Mara had even ended back here was overwhelming. What decisions had to be made, what circumstances were thrust upon them, to be now alone on Honeypot? One dead, one alive. One less person in this universe looking to save their children from harm.
It had been over a year since Mara last saw them.
Before then, she never even knew the black market existed. It was during a cruise destination through the Rosco solar system their family was torn apart. Slavers took Sacha and Evelin and dragged them away at gunpoint. Law enforcement officers were useless, only accosting the panicked couple about signing up for the non-sanctioned waterfall excursion to begin with.
Arriving home, they were contacted by the Syndicate with a discrete location and threatened with violence if authorities became involved. Mara and Dante set off to a freshly terraformed planet, setting down beside an inn well beyond the capital city walls. One of the crime family’s many secret locations.
While gangsters led them through a labyrinth of tunnels, the couple kept quiet. Dante, rightfully distrusting, stashed his gun in a concealed holster. The same gun that now sat at her side on the desert floor.
When they entered a wide bar like setting, their girls ran in from an adjacent room, all family members coming together in a tearful hug. Through their elation, a voice cut in. Shrill and wobbly, contrasting with the man of great size it came from.
“Pilots, right? Decent ones, with clean records?” Gregor, the mob boss asked.
“That’s right,” Dante replied.
With that, Gregor lifted out of his chair and exiting the room. Before disappearing, Mara noticed him nod to a lanky man with sharp teeth, who then approached. She’d come to learn this was his second in command, and their eventual handler, Westley. Always fashionable but never able to hide the scars and pocked skin that covered every inch of his face.
From an adjacent door, several women entered and grabbed hold of the children. Bodyguards raised their weapons when Dante and Mara struggled. The Syndicate gang members ushered their kids away. Young Evelin was still smiling in some sort of naïve optimism while Sacha, almost in her teens, seemed to know better. Mara hadn’t seen them since.
“You run, they’re dead.” Westley said, pausing to ensure the kids were no longer in earshot. “You tell the cops, they’re dead. You don’t deliver, they’re dead. Fuck us over in any way, you’re dead. Got it?”
While recalling this memory as she lay in the sand, Mara whispered the words that she should have said that day. “Dante, fire away.”
If the crash landing hadn’t annihilated her adrenal glands, she may have had enough energy to stay awake the whole night. It would’ve been safer than losing consciousness with some creature out there. Yet, after several hours, the inevitable hit.
As the sun rose, it seemed radioactive, out of control. The rays penetrated through the flight suit, heating her skin.
While Mara had no device to tell time, she approximated a similar day and night schedule to standard Earth measurements.
Desperate to calm her growling stomach somehow, she broke her mask’s gasket and gripped down on a protein bar with her teeth before resealing. Once done chewing, she ventured over the dune, dragged her suit and underwear down to her ankles, and urinated. Even pulling them forward to avoid her stream caused incredible strain to her traumatized muscles. After finishing, she admired the litany of bruises bestowed from the crash. Mara ventured back to her spot, exchanged another cartridge and laid back.
She surveyed the early morning landscape. There was still just the blackened crater of scorched metal, surrounded by sandbanks, and nothing more. Certainly, no rescue waiting for her. Far back against the horizon looked to be hills or a mountain range of some kind but she knew there was no hope of walking that far.
Alone. Except, the possibility of whatever she heard walking around at night. Mara was confident in her assessment that it was somewhere out near the crash but couldn’t see any true evidence of that. The wind made quick work of tracks in the sand here.
A realization crept in with her thoughts in order. If there would be any rescue, she’d need the silver case back. Having it meant the ability to buy safe passage from entrepreneurial travellers. It could also mean staying alive at least one more day if those rescuers happened to be the Syndicate.
Mara left her backpack behind and approached the cremation grounds of her husband. She focused her eyes on the mound of burnt debris and looked for anything moving. Sweat ran down inside her suit, that same clammy feeling she got when they had to pass through Transportation Ministry stations. No matter how many runs they performed, that feeling always remained.
She dared not pull the pistol unless needed because of how loose her footing was. Mara fell to her knees every few steps while descending the crater.
Nearing where she had tumbled down the hull, what little wreckage remained cast a shadow and enveloped her, cutting down glare. This allowed a better ability to survey the immediate area. There was still heat in the smouldered remains, but less so. It was a relief.
It’s here, she thought. Somewhere in this sand.
Mara began her search by performing wider and wider concentric circles. She kicked, dug, and shuffled around in hopes of hitting something solid. While working, the sun rose and removed all shade that was left.
Clunk. Mara’s already swollen left foot throbbed with the impact of hitting something hard under the surface.
Kneeling, she burrowed like a stray dog. More silver kept appearing, but it wasn’t pristine. There were scorch marks and dents. She hauled up the case, sand refilling the hole.
Just a quick look. Make sure it’s still intact.
Mara took one last glance around the debris field for any movement, then used both thumbs to click free its locks. A shriek of air escaped. The pressurized seal rang out like an alarm.
She didn’t hear anything at first. It was the shadow enveloping her that made Mara take notice while rummaging through the eight steel bricks within. She glanced up. Her eyes locked onto a creature’s glare, with sharp eyes encircled by grey scales.
A Bloomer. Perched up on the debris field behind her, standing at least three meters tall. She gasped and felt her body go numb.
Despite looking wildly larger than she had ever seen, it was certainly one of them. The etched in identification numbers along its neck, some distorted by a protruding tumour, confirmed this. It doubled Mara’s height and looked to weigh ten times more.
In a single motion, its two front feet slammed down on the sand in front of her and a forked tongue darted out. It then continued forward, creating that clomping sound from the night before.
Fire away, she thought to say, but her voice was paralyzed by fear.
Mara’s right glove fumbled its way around the gun’s grip while shaking. She pulled up, but it slipped. The gun thumped into the ground below her. Mara fell to her knees and picked it up, raising the weapon to be level with the approaching Bloomer’s eyes.
An analogue click. Nothing.
Its diagnostic light flashed red, but she had no time to assess. The lizard like creature was closing in, each concussive stomp shaking the sand below.
Mara picked up the nearest item of any heft, one of the bricks from within her case. She wound up and chucked the Goods, sending a fortune worth of narcotics coursing through the air.
The creature snapped at it, catching the rectangular object in its mouth. Rows of teeth clamped down on it like a cigar. A crunch rang out, and the synthetic reptile stopped its advances.
Mara didn’t move, figuring a step back could provoke the creature into continuing its attack. This close, she could feel the heat being exhausted from its nostrils, blowing against her flight suit.
There was a dilation of the gigantic lizard’s eyes, and a shiver travelled up its long, fat tail. The drugs were working.
While careful to keep an eye on the beast, Mara collected another one in her hand. This time, she whipped it over the debris field, in the opposite direction of her escape route.
The Bloomer lunged to snag the Goods but missed. It took several steps towards the trajectory, stopped, then set its sights on the case.
“Shit,” Mara whispered.
She yanked three out and placed them in her cargo pockets. That was it, all she could hope to carry. The remaining three were sealed back in the case.
It charged forward, looking desperate. The Bloomer snarled while Mara gripped the case’s handle and pitched it underhand with all her might. It flew to a destination too far on the other side of the ship’s husk to see.
The Bloomer took chase, nearly crashing its swollen tail into Mara’s chest. She took off, stumbling after the first few steps.
Mara got distance from the wreckage, but it was punishing. The escape was slower than the day before, having not much spare energy to give anymore. The drug filled bricks in her pockets were heavy and swaying in their pockets like pendulums.
When she looked back, the creature had whipped up a small dust storm, limbs thrashing about while digging. It also could be heard coughing, loud enough to cut in over Mara’s own heavy breathing.
Refocusing ahead, Mara saw her backpack was still visible on top of the dune. Her mask blared with a warning for a new cartridge, which she exchanged without stopping. A thought occurred to her about running further, picking up her backpack and doubling the distance from that monster, but she’d lose visual on the crash site. If rescue were coming, they’d start by arriving there.
Once arriving back on the tall dune, she sat down, taking laboured breaths. Vapour wisps accompanied her mask’s exhaust. Mara tried to slow her breaths down, but every time she closed her eyes to concentrate, she was assaulted with images of her children in distress, Dante’s corpse, and that manmade beast.
Was the sun still rising? She couldn’t imagine how it was only midday after the insanity just witnessed. The mask’s auto tint did very little to shield her from its rays. A deep burn was setting in, feeling like a thousand prodding needles.
Her mask indicated fifty percent. She was chewing through this one too quickly. Evidently, Mara’s father was right—fear and anxiety did get too much airtime.
With both eyes welled up, she couldn’t hold it in any longer and cried. This went on, and on, obscuring her view with no chance to wipe the tears away. Mara wanted to scream but had enough control to not invite any further attention from the Bloomer.
When it was all done, so too was that cartridge. She flicked the small plastic component away and replaced it. There were several left, but not enough to last another full day of distress.
The insanity of still fighting to stay alive made her laugh. Dante did say she was stubborn. Her father came to mind once more. She could hear him reciting a favourite saying, “In life, there’s only one action with a guaranteed outcome. Doing nothing.”
The sun reached its peak and descended while Mara wrapped bandages from her first aid pack around the top of her cap and mask for added protection from the elements. If she was going to try surviving a little while longer, Mara figured doing so without blistered skin was preferable.
The Bloomer’s unusual coughing had died down. She could see the faintest outline of the charred debris it buried itself under. There was a distinct possibility that the Goods could’ve killed the beast.
Another possibility came to mind. Maybe more Bloomers were out there. But she convinced herself it was alone. Like herself.
Dante’s gun was jammed, that’s what the diagnostic was attempting to tell her earlier. Lacking a cleaning kit, Mara whacked the gun against her boots to jostle any debris loose. Its light went back to a glowing green for three pulses before blanking out.
Fixed? Or, more broken than ever?
With the hours of daylight that were left, Mara rationed her last bit of food.
Cold crept in with the night sky once more. She submerged much of her body in the loose sand to conserve heat. Sleep did come quicker this night, but she didn’t dream of Gregor, Westley, and the other gangsters. Not even of the Bloomer. It was of Dante, Evelin, and Sacha looking at her from a short distance away. They seemed proud.
The crackle of thrusters firing high above startled Mara awake. She glanced around through the early morning light and spotted what looked like two suns. As her eyes adjusted, it became more obvious—a drop ship.
The small troop transport hovered, vacillating as if trying to figure out where best to place its belly. “Drop your bird,” she whispered with a dry throat. “You’ll need plenty of juice to get off this sand.”
As if hearing her, the ship landed just right of her freighter’s remains. The sand cloud it kicked up blocked Mara’s vision. This also cause a refraction inside her mask, showing a mirror image of her face. It was burnt and dry.
Mara dusted off her mask while the sound of slowing turbines still filled the sky. Every muscle felt like they had endured the wildest marathon. She was a runner, long before the kids. Bearing children had made her body soft but her mind strong.
After sitting up with a great deal of effort, she managed to get a front row seat to the levellers of the drop ship at play. Enough dust had settled to see that the ship was military grade, but unmarked and weathered. Its ramp descended.
The creature, camouflaged, didn’t stir from its resting place.
She wanted to get up, to warn her saviours of the beast that lay near them, but her legs struggled to find strength. Instead, Mara could only look on as they stepped onto the landscape, three in total. Masks obscured their faces, and they were armed with rifles. All three donned in fluttering dark material, looking more like merchants than officers.
One of them pointed her way, and they approached. She became nervous and her heart raced. Still, with three remaining bricks, she had enough narcotics to buy out the ship they rode in on. In Mara’s mind, that had to account for something.
With every step, the three figures became clearer. Something about their movements seemed familiar. Exchanging her last cartridge of air defogged the mask, allowing for a sharper image. A wiry man led his two heavier set companions.
Mara slipped her husband’s gun into a cargo pocket and unfastened the holster’s buckle. She pressed it down, sinking it below the surface in hopes they wouldn’t notice.
Westley. His face mask did little to hide the evil behind it once in front of her. “Mara… care to explain this calamity? Thankfully, your ship’s transponder pinged us before dying. Way off course. Gregor’s not happy with you, not one bit.”
“Westley, please, I—”
“Now, I could ask how you walked away from that.” He motioned to the wreckage. “But all I want to know is what else survived.”
“Where are the Goods?”
It was all the same to Mara that he was cutting her off. What was going to exit her mouth amounted nothing more to pleading, and he didn’t own a morsel of kindness. Still, there was a plan forming, but it was murky. There’s now a ship, and I’m a pilot.
A bruiser who had roughed up Dante on a few occasions, Ferdinand, cut into the silence. “Where’s your man?”
“He’s gone.” She paused, stifling a whimper.
The revelation made Ferdinand chuckle and punch his partner, Sanjeev, in the arm. Some sort of end to a conversation they had started earlier.
Westley glared into her eyes while his tongue traced along his upper row of pointy teeth. “Mara, never trust a scorned woman. I ever tell you that one?”
“Almost every time we meet,” she replied with muted defiance.
He leaned down and gripped either side of her flight suit. “Then you know why I don’t believe a fucking word you say.”
He hoisted Mara up. When her feet found the ground, they managed to support her weight. Barely.
“The Goods? Yes, I saved them from the wreckage.”
“Some here.” She said, pointing toward her backpack.
Ferdinand darted forward to snag it, tearing open the small bag that kept her alive the past few days. The three bricks fell out.
“And the rest?” Westley growled.
“There.” She pointed toward the charred remains.
“There? There’s a desert, Mara. Where exactly?”
She grinned, her burnt skin straining under the pressure. “The crater. Somewhere on the opposite side of the debris. I slipped when escaping and the Goods tumbled down the port side.”
“Why are these ones with you? Trying to rip us off?”
“Just what I had in my hand when checking on their integrity before slipping.”
Westley’s head tilted back in annoyance. After several moments of looking like he was going to strike her, he turned away to face the two brutes.
“Go and collect it. Your short range scanner should pick up the case. I won’t bother marching this corpse,” aiming a thumb at Mara, “it’d take too long.”
The two brutes turned and marched away. A lack of footing while on route underscored their tough exteriors, occasionally stumbling and bumping into one another. Maybe, she continued thinking, the Bloomer can make good work of them. It will if this place has any mercy left for me.
She turned to Westley. “How… are my girls?”
“You know better than to ask about them.”
“Please. Just tell me they’re safe.”
“They’re safe,” he replied with a sarcastic inflection.
Mara looked away as her emotions tried to climb their way to the surface. There, far toward the wreckage, the brutes neared. She returned her attention to her handler, who was also watching on.
She had to steal his focus. Her plan had come into full view. Mara needed Westley to be caught off guard when the Bloomer sprang into action. Then, she figured there could be a chance to down him with the concealed gun and board his drop ship. There would be several more thugs on the transport freighter that brought them into orbit, but one problem at a time.
“Westley, I mean it. Are they okay?”
“I’ll level with you. No girls who owe the organization are truly safe. Our clients we service, all of them are dangerous. I’d gladly give you a demonstration, but I’ve expended enough energy on this hellhole. That, and you look like my burnt breakfast.”
They’re there. Right on top of that creature.
She flung down her tattered gloves and pushed him. “Don’t talk about them that way!”
With a small windup, he whipped an arm back, dislodging her facemask and knocking Mara to the ground. The sand was even hotter on her hands now with exposed skin. It was disorientating but she had enough experience from the last two days to catch her breath before losing too much air. While on her back, Mara flung both hands up to readjust and pressurise the mask. She clicked the button, which created a seal, but the heads up display registered a leak in progress. The sand on her face didn’t allow for full suction. Digits were falling off the air percentage left in her cartridge.
He stood above her, straddling the downed woman’s waist. “You’ve truly lost it, haven’t you? Cooked inside and out.”
“Boss!” Sanjeev’s yell was just a whisper above the wind.
Westley raised a small device to mouth level. “Use the radio. I can’t hear a damned thing you’re saying. No MWSF out here anyway.”
“There’s something in the wreckage… It’s huge, like a beast.”
Mara held her breath, not wanting the opportunity to go to waste.
Sanjeev continued, “It’s dead. Watch your back, sir. May be more of whatever these are.”
No. No! Wake up! Please, give me one drop of help on this fucking planet. Show me why Dante dropped us here of all places.
She tried to adjust her mask and stop the leak, but Westley kicked her hand back.
A moment later, the radio crackled on once again. “We’ve got it. The case, at least. It was torn into shreds and the contents are missing.”
“Well,” he clipped the radio on a waist clip and unshouldered his rifle. “You’ve officially come up short, Mara.”
Westley released a safety switch that began charging the weapon’s electrical bolts.
She winced and gritted her teeth.
A distant scream. A booming growl. Rifle shots rang out.
Westley spun back to the ship, running several feet forward and into a crouched position to view through the rifle’s scope. She could see his ribs and spine through the tight jacket.
She found new energy, fuelled by hope, to prop herself up to a sitting position. Without gloves to fumble with this time, Mara got her hand tight around the gun and pulled it out, levelling her aim roughly where Westley’s heart would be.
A small tick indicated the charge was ready. She waited for her shaking hand to find the target again and clicked. A blue bolt exploded out of the gun’s muzzle.
It missed, coursing past Westley’s right ear.
He turned, eyes wider than she had ever seen. So wide that Mara could see they did in fact have some colour and weren’t completely black. His reflexes were fast, much quicker than hers. He aimed and got a shot off. She fired again, sending a bolt flying through his mask, splattering blood against his visor.
Smoke wafted up in front of Mara’s vision. A quick glance down revealed a simmering hole through the middle of her suit. Everything felt warm and numb.
Westley’s body collapsed, convulsing on the sand for a moment before becoming limp.
Looking past him, Mara could make out what looked to be a mirage where her downed freighter once was. A wavy image streaked with green. The shooting had stopped, so did the whimpers and groans.
Then, something cut through the shimmery heat waves of green, black, and blue. The Bloomer, tail thrashing about and riddled with green splashes. If her eyes weren’t deceiving her, they seemed like bolt wounds. Every one of these tiny holes erupting with near fluorescent plant life, falling onto the sand all around.
The creature came closer, but stopped, coughed out flora, and turned toward the drop ship. It lumbered up the ramp, fitting its head inside while clawing at the hull. Then, a cough, the loudest yet, and it went limp. Greenery oozed back down all crevices of the drop ship. It kept spreading, like creeping thyme through time lapse footage.
That bloom, so stunning. A minute before, it wasn’t there, and now it was so lush. She could see a flash of what her and Dante tried to do here decades prior.
Mara adjusted the mask for a better seal. Then, she rolled to her stomach and lifted to a crawl. Blood oozed down to the sand below from her stomach. Once grabbing hold of her torn apart pack, she slipped out a small medical gel applicator.
“I’m coming, girls.”
She took the cap off and smeared its red substance over the entrance and exit wound. A temporary measure, and not one that addressed any internal bleeding. Still, it was enough to allow Mara to set her gaze on the flora covered drop ship.
Her mask had been warning about lack of oxygen for some time, but she continued. Mara barely noticed when the sand under her hands and knees began clumping together with vines. Only when the lively vegetation twirled around her finger did she truly realize how close she had now gotten.She began to choke, stirring awake any last ounce of adrenaline. Surging forward, Mara came across the ramp, partly blocked by the Bloomer’s body. The creature was now nearly unrecognizable, having morphed into a botanical mass.
Having squeezed by it, Mara ascended into the bay, but could only see greenery on every wall.
She couldn’t bare the choking and suffocation any longer. Mara whipped the mask off to face her demise head on.
Except, it wasn’t poison that entered her lungs. It was breathable air.
The plants. I can’t believe it. Dante, my god, they’re doing it.
Exhausted, Mara collapsed onto the flora around her. While lying there, she felt the vines move and creep up the sides of her body. Slowly, much slower than their initial, violent expulsion. They moved across the entrance wound on her chest and, while consciousness slipped away, Mara felt them plug the leak.
“Sir,” the frigate’s pilot motioned out their aft window. “The drop ship.”
Captain Dawes lurched forward from a slumber, leaning into his dashboard to see a blank grid. “Not on radar. You sure you aren’t seeing things again?”
“It’s right there! I know the glow of those thrusters anywhere.”
The captain palmed his pilot’s face from the viewport and stared out. A flicker between them and the giant golden planet they were orbiting. Still looking, he thumbed the microphone switch on his wrist to broadcast. “Westley, your jammer is on. What the hell took you so long, mate? We were supposed to be gone hours ago. Gregor is going to be pissed.”
The drop ship continued ahead silently, spinning itself into a docking position.
“Sir, they aren’t answering. Should we allow them to dock?”
Dawes shot his pilot a look of disdain, causing the young man to physically recoil. “You probably knocked something loose when prepping them prior to take off. It wouldn’t be the first time that bucket of bolts has malfunctioned.”
Their frigate rattled for a moment when the maglocks caught Westley’s drop ship. Dawes leaned into the pilot seat and flicked a switch to engage the vestibule.
The comm system lit up. “This is not Westley.”
They looked at each other in equal part dismay and confusion.
“This is the Green Ghost of Honeypot. I’ve come for my children. I’ve come for Gregor’s head.”